Gilbert Harding 

1 January 2005

By definition, someone must occupy the position of ‘first or’ most’ in any list. First television star. Most famous person in Britain -including the Queen. First person to be rude to someone else on air – and without using four-letter words at them. Most famous gay man – thus knocking Oscar Wilde into a temporary second place.

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Gilbert Harding was all of these. For the period from 1952 until his death in 1960, there was no one more famous than Gilbert Harding in the UK. His appearances on television could draw more viewers than the Queen; his exploits featured in a daily column in a national newspaper.

Gilbert Harding

When television was a monopoly service, with just one channel and a limited reach via a paucity of transmitters and the lack of affordability of television sets, there was one programme that guaranteed that ‘lookers-in’ would switch on.

Ironically for the BBC, it was an American format – What’s My Line. A very simple format, entertaining enough, inexpensive to make. As a monopoly, the BBC could buy the rights cheaply enough: the choices for CBS being to sell the format to the BBC or simply make no sale.

Harding started in the chair, but the experience was a disaster and the job went to television’s other great celebrity, Eamonn Andrews. Five editions later and Harding was back, this time as a panellist (far right, below).

What's My Line

The show was very popular and dominated the ratings, such as they were, in the winter of 1951-52. If that had been all, the programme would have quickly faded from memory, a relic from times long passed.

But Harding wasn’t one to hide his light under a bushel. The idea of having a division between public persona and private was in its infancy. So, fortified by his fondness for hitting the bottle before a performance and to relieve his chronic asthma, he was happy to be Gilbert Harding in front of the camera.

That meant being rude. In a time where deference was not only shown at all times but expected of all people, he flashed his real personality to the camera. He told a contestant that he was “tired of looking at you”.

In a world shaped by Kenneth Tynan saying “fuck” on air, plus a diet of soft porn on a couple of terrestrial channels, telling someone that you have grown tired of them hardly sounds shocking.

But that age was yet to come; this was a period when the lower middle classes – themselves something of a new development – were virtually the only watchers of television. A world where the people who read the Daily Mail, largely the same newspaper then as it is now, were the entire audience for a television programme.

It was as if someone had walked into a standard 2.4-child household uninvited, stood in the drawing room and started to curse.

The viewers were outraged, appalled, disgusted. And they tuned in to the next edition of What’s My Line in their droves in order to see if it would happen again.

Of course, it did and it didn’t. Harding needed a deserving target (or at least an adequate one), plus the alcohol. But the people tuned in to see if it would happen, and often enough, it did.

Before long, the idea of owning a television moved from being a luxury to a necessity. In 1953, the Coronation ensured that you had to know someone, somewhere, who owned a television so you could see this one-off event. By 1954, you needed a television if you didn’t want to be a social outcast, unable to talk to neighbours or colleagues because they were all talking about Gilbert Harding.

For Harding, this fame was a double-edged sword. It brought him a good income (though hardly a great fortune – the BBC would not pay more just because a panellist on a programme on the Television Service was in someway famous) but required him to take a facet of his character – his ‘rudeness’ – and make it his entire personality. The viewing public had decided: they didn’t want Harding, they wanted Mr Nasty. If he wanted fame, he had to continue to plough that furrow. If he stopped, they would lose interest. Yet if he continued, he would become a parody of himself.

Since Harding, virtually every celebrity has faced this type of conundrum. They have all had to make a choice between what their public wants from them and what they want to be.

But Harding was the first to have to make this choice. He had no precedent to follow. And, like many who came after him, he tried to be both.

His rudeness on What’s My Line continued unabated; but he also made programmes that fitted with his personal interests. Harding Finds Out was a poorly received semi-investigative programme in the style of so many Tonight and Nationwide packages of later years.

I know What I Like followed him as he looked into art, poetry and music: all chosen by him, and all of a distinct middlebrow tone that suited his fans’ tastes but did nothing for art, and didn’t give those same fans the rudeness they were looking for.

His company, a tax dodge he called Gilbert Harding (Exploitation) Limited, produced a number of middlebrow books, including one, ha ha, on etiquette and manners.

But through all of this, he remained unhappy. He was amazingly famous, yet unknown. His every move attracted attention, yet his attempts to show the country his particular interests fell short. His rudeness was what made him, yet he didn’t see himself as a rude person. The public adored him, but only so long as he kept offending them.

As television matured, the medium became more confident. Harding’s star waned as other programmes took on What’s My Line, offering money as a prize rather than just a signed scroll. Harding took to accepting roles in the cinema, but again found that the cinema audience – so the directors supposed – wanted Mr Nasty, not Mr Harding. He continued to parody himself.

One thing television had developed was the art of the confessional. As the era of ‘television in the drawing-room’ faded, the medium developed a line in pointing a camera in tight close-up at a person and having a presenter bark or beguile questions at them.

Such programmes could be used for good or ill. This Week from Associated-Rediffusion and World in Action from Granada made very good use of the format in the pursuit of a greater depth to current affairs. Daniel Farson at A-R decided to point the camera at People in Trouble, thus creating the ethos, if not the format, of the fly-on-the-wall documentary.

Face to Face was the BBC’s answer to these shows. It sought the people in the news or minor celebrities and put them, literally, under the spotlight. The result was a series of interviews that were painful, poignant or pugnacious depending largely on how the interviewer, former Labour MP John Freeman, later to become head of LWT, chose to tackle his subject.

Face to Face interviewed a glittering array of the greatest names in 1959-62. Bertrand Russell on CND, Henry Moore on sculpture, Evelyn Waugh on writing, Edith Sitwell on poetry, Adam Faith on singing, John Osborne on playwriting, Carl Gustav Jung on therapy and Tony Hancock on comedy.

But the interview with Harding was to become infamous, because Freeman was set on questioning him not about fame or rudeness, but on being a homosexual.

For readers in the early 21st century, this probably needs clarification. Homosexuality then was of just as much prurient interest to the tabloids and the general viewer as it is now. The difference is that people then actually cared about someone’s sexuality – and made a value judgement upon them because of it, that today the same people would never consider. Worse than that, being gay was illegal. The law was clear: it reserved the right to interfere in your bedroom, and allowed for the life imprisonment of any man convicted of having been born gay.

That law was seen as a blackmailer’s charter, which it indeed was: the change in the law in 1967 was almost entirely because the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality was seen as a lesser evil than the crime of blackmail.

Why Harding agreed to appear looks mysterious with hindsight; but the man who broke the ground for rudeness on air was hardly likely to be aware that a fellow media man was out to destroy him and open him up to a world of blackmail and fear.

Nevertheless, this is what Freeman wanted to do, and his gentle questioning at the start of the live interview was designed to trap Harding into having to admit this most abominable of ‘crimes’.

Freeman circled around his subject, asking questions about Harding’s upbringing and his failure to marry, always feinting at the true issue. Freeman made pointed reference to Harding’s ‘mannerisms’, suggesting that Harding was camp (he was not). Eventually, the façade cracked and he began to cry when Freeman mentioned the recent death of Harding’s mother.

This was again something new. Just as people were never rude on television, they also didn’t cry real emotional tears. Actors might gush as the part demands, but ‘ordinary people’- as celebrities like Harding were thought to be? Never.

Freeman did not get the confession he sought. He made Harding sweat and cry and admit, “I’m afraid of dying. I should be very glad to be dead but I don’t look forward to the actual process of dying,” and that his “…bad manners and bad temper… it’s quite indefensible…”; “I’m almost unfit to live with… I’m profoundly lonely…”

But it would take more than the insinuating tone of a TV reporter to get a man to destroy is own career and bring the police to his house by admitting to being gay. At the same time, Freeman was unable to accuse Harding directly – bound by the same social conventions that kept Harding in the closet and, coincidentally, made him so famous.

There might still have been a fall-out from the interview. The shock of the tears and Harding’s squirming under pressure could have damaged his career – or put an end to the view of Harding as a single-dimensional ‘rude’ man and thus leave him without the only thing that made him famous.

We shall never know what effect the interview would have had on Harding’s career – whether it would have destroyed him or liberated him. The interview went out on 18 September 1960, but Harding died suddenly – not of the asthma that had troubled him for years, but of a heart attack – on the steps of Broadcasting House at the age of just 53, on 16 November of the same year.

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8 responses to this article

Ron Collins 23 February 2013 at 5:46 pm

There is no mention that Gilber Harding was born in a ‘work house’. His mother and father were the Master and mistress of the establishment which still stands in the grounds of the Hereford County Hospital.

Don Phillipson 11 January 2014 at 5:46 pm

“Freeman mentioned the recent death of Harding’s mother” seems an error, raising doubt that R.J. Graham ever saw this TV broadcast (or that the Wikipedia account was available before Graham wrote this.) There seems little duobt that before the interview Freeman supposed Harding’s mother was alive. He asked midway whether Harding had ever seen someone die, not knowing Harding had been at his mother’s death-bed quite recently — hence the tears. It seems true that Harding revealed his inner unhappiness immensely more than anyone had expected.

Russ J Graham 12 January 2014 at 12:39 pm

I have seen this TV broadcast, and I don’t use Wikipedia for research. There has long been dispute as to whether Freeman knew of the death of Harding’s mother. Latterly, many commentators have decided that he didn’t. Further back in time, many commentators decided that he did. I’m in the latter camp, knowing Freeman’s feline interviewing style, but the matter is still open for debate.

Victor agius 26 November 2015 at 7:10 pm

Gilbert Harding was quite brilliant and very watchable enormously enjoyable and well respected I could watch and watch

Robin 6 February 2016 at 4:39 pm

Did anyone else ever see Gilbert Harding playing polo?

Paul Mason 9 March 2016 at 5:02 am

Gilbert Harding was a little before my TV memory was forming but I.have seen this Face To Face broadcast. Harding doesn’t burst into tears, his face moistens a bit.
Another myrh is that Gilbert Harding died on the steps of Broafcasting House, as there are no steps there. Harding collapsed on the pavement and his chauffeur was too late with the oxygen cylinder that he took with him. Harding suffered poor health due to heavy drinking and smoking. He looked older than the age of 53, but people did then.

peter 2 March 2018 at 10:37 am

Harding was gay and he was also impotent this is probably why he never formed any close relationships.He became bad tempered when drunk and often had to be asked to leave the Sussex ,where he used to drink.

Alan Giles 16 November 2020 at 11:00 am

In a way now, it hardly matters. Gilbert Harding died 60 years ago today, as I write this, and I remember him, not only from What’s My Line? (I often got the impression Eamonn Andrews irritated him, and so he took it out on the contestants) but from radio shows like “Purely For Pleasure” ( a weekly music programme on records on the Light Programme) and Round Britain Quiz (Home Servie). John Freeman has been gone a fair time now too, I knew neither man, but I am sure the writer of the article is wrong in suggesting that Mr Freeman was trying to “out” GH. Mr. Freeman sought the truth from his guests, merely I think, to try to paint a fuller picture of his subject. Often they succeeded in evading the questions (John Osborne for example,and Tony Hancock). I can’t believe John Freeman would have wanted to send a man to prison, and in fact, that interview, as all the rest of Face To Face was not “ive” it was recorded a couple of weeks prior to broadcast (I seem to recall reading long ago this one was made during August for transmission in September) and I remember John Freeman himself saying that Gilbert Harding did not ask for any edits to be made from the interview (John Furness the series producer was apparently willing to acomodate second thoughts.

A bit like Dirk Bogarde, I don’t think Gilbert Harding would have “come out” like Philip Schofield did earlier this year. They valued their privacy.

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